Debating Space: A Tale of Two Policies – One Real, One TBD

By Keith Cowing
October 14, 2004
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Debating Space: A Tale of Two Policies – One Real, One TBD

A day after the last of the Presidential campaign debates, a hundred or so space professionals gathered this morning in Washington, DC to hear a debate between representatives of the Bush and Kerry campaigns on space policy. One campaign talked about what it was doing in space – the other talked about what it might do.

Representing the Kerry campaign was Lori Garver from DFI International. Garver said that she had been volunteering her time to the campaign for eight months. Garver is a former NASA Associate Administrator and the former Executive Director of the National Space Society. In recent weeks Garver has made it very clear to a number of people in the aerospace community that she is deeply interested in – and, indeed, is pushing for – the nod to be the next Administrator of NASA – should John Kerry win, of course. As such, Garver had been very anxious to debate Sean O’Keefe so as to enhance her stature as a possible successor. Alas, the Bush campaign decided to use another representative instead. Also in the audience (but not speaking) was John Logsdon from George Washington University who has also been formally advising the Kerry campaign this year.

Representing the Bush campaign was Frank Sietzen. Sietzen is a veteran space journalist and active member of the Republican party in Virginia. In his opening statement, Sietzen sought to allay any concerns about possible conflicts by announcing that he was no longer going to be reporting about space as a journalist and, instead, would be speaking out in support of the President’s space policy. It is also important to note in terms of any bias on my part, that Frank is my co-author in writing our recently released book “New Moon Rising” which describes the genesis of President Bush’s space policy.

Unlike previous debates featuring Garver, this one was a bit more lively. In summary, Garver expressed doubts about the cost of the overall plan, the Administration’s support for it, and the sacrifices she claims will be made to other NASA programs in order to focus this agency on one specific task i.e. human and robotic exploration. Moreover, Garver felt that NASA had become too politicized, that the Bush Administration had developed its space plan behind closed doors and that the Bush Administration has been silent about the policy since its announcement. And of course, a Kerry Administration would not make any of the mistakes she felt the Bush Administration had made.

Sietzen countered that other programs at NASA were not being sacrificed, that the agency was being transformed so as to better address the task set before it by the White House, that Congress has been increasingly supportive of the President’s budget request, and that the idea of the agency being overly politicized was a bit of a red herring since Sean O’Keefe’s predecessor (and Garver’s boss) Dan Goldin was equally political.

Garver claimed that the Bush space policy made human and robotic exploration “the sole purpose of NASA” and that “the plan is based on political rhetoric rather than technical and fiscal reality. It was developed in secret without involving the U.S. scientific and engineering community or potential international partners.” This is somewhat in keeping with an earlier characterization she made in July 2004 on a Yahoo Group “KerrySpace” where she said “the Bush initiative is simply hot-air and has made it impossible in an election year for Kerry to say much on space.”

Garver questioned where the money for the President’s space plan was to come from. Her assertion was that since the money had to come from somewhere, that things such as aeronautics, space science, and earth science would be shortchanged in order to pay for this new program of human and robotic exploration. She suggested that Kerry would seek to promote a balanced program at NASA – one that considered all of NASA’s research efforts – and not just one.

Garver complained about NASA’s inability to get a green light on audits of its finances – and a $2 billion discrepancy in its books. Sietzen noted that Garver omitted mention of the $4 billion ISS cost overrun that occurred under her former boss, Dan Goldin and that was one of the very first things the Bush Administration had to deal with when it took office.

Garver complained “this is the most partisan NASA in its history. Perhaps the greatest challenge to the long term sustainability of NASA and its programs is this new partisanship.” Garver then went on to declare that John Kerry and John Edwards would “work to depoliticize space”. When asked to elaborate she said NASA has an Administrator “who engages in fundraising and attended the Republican National Convention when cabinet members were told not to — in support of an effort on behalf of Congressman DeLay who most recently has run into some ethics problems.” Of course, this was a really cheap shot by Garver who was clearly trying to link O’Keefe’s presence with DeLay’s ethics problems – a connection which, in all honesty, simply does not exist. Also, FYI, Lori: Sean O’Keefe is not a member of the President’s cabinet.

Garver seemed exasperated by all these politics saying ” this was never done at NASA.” She went on to state that there has been “no effort” to take a bipartisan approach to the space policy and that “those of us on the Democratic side who tried to help with this effort early on were told specifically our help was not wanted.”

Sietzen reminded Garver about an appearance by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin at an event for vice presidential candidate Al Gore in 1992. Sietzen took issue with Garver’s assertion that there was no attempt at bipartisanship by the Bush Administration in promoting its space policy by listing a series of legislative and budget compromises – all of which had been made in a bipartisan fashion with help from a number of prominent Democrats.

Sietzen noted that the Bush space policy initiative began in the aftermath of the Columbia accident when both parties – in both chambers of Congress – complained that America lacked an overall vision in space. This concern was echoed in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s final report. As for having been cobbled together in secret, Sietzen reminded Garver of a similar process whereby President Kennedy crafted what would become his space policy. “I don’t believe he had a focus group” Sietzen quipped.

Sietzen repeatedly questioned the sincerity of the Kerry campaign vis -a vis space – and the absence of any overt, specific space policy formulation by the campaign. “When you hear John Edwards prowling around the country saying ‘there’s two Americas — well guess what, space is not in either one of them.”

When asked (by Sietzen) if the Kerry campaign supported return to flight of the space shuttle fleet, Garver said that indeed the Kerry campaign did support it. However, she was less than firm about just what that meant. She invoked a caveat to supporting shuttle flights by saying that the number of flights required would depend upon discussions she hoped to see take place between all of the partners in the ISS program. Out of such discussions, presumably to include other launching options available, would come a decision as to how many shuttle flights would be needed.

This public position made by Garver today is in stark contradiction to the one she has been promoting around town: i.e. that she (and presumably an incoming Kerry Administration) wants to stop flying the space shuttle as soon as possible – far sooner than the 2010-2011 timeframe envisioned by the Bush space policy. The Kerry camp apparently has no intention of making this stance known until after the election (too bad for voters in Texas and Florida) . Reportedly, one of the people pushing for this is Kerry campaign advisor, John Glenn. As such, one could speculate that this is why Kerry and his staff were so terrified that photos of him inside a space shuttle (with Glenn) might get out this past summer.

When asked to reconcile all that she had said about Kerry’s purported positive views on space with a voting record wherein he repeatedly voted to cut or cancel various NASA activities including the ISS, Garver noted that she was not all that concerned about this – and that one should not consider Kerry’s Senate voting record as being indicative of how Kerry would view NASA as President. To drive that point home, Garver complained that President Bush had never visited the Johnson Space Center (located in his home state) when he was governor of Texas. Moreover, according to Garver, Bush did not enunciate a space policy as governor. And as President, Bush waited until well into his current term in the White House to announce such a policy – and then, only when he had to.

Sietzen replied with a detailed listing of the multiple occasions wherein Kerry consistently voted against NASA projects over the course of a decade to which Garver was repeatedly dismissive. Garver was either unwilling to defend Kerry’s voting record – or she was unable to. Given the constant harping that both campaigns make about the other candidate’s past – and their voting records – this is an amazingly lazy way for Garver to deal with the issue.

Judge Kerry’s space voting record and statements about space for yourself: “John Kerry on Space 2004” an excerpt from “New Moon Rising”.

When asked if Kerry would support NASA’s existing budget or seek an increase Garver could only say that Kerry spoke of funding NASA at a sustainable and perhaps a growing level. However, this was linked to an important caveat i.e. Kerry’s ability to reduce the deficit. The unspoken implication being if that if Kerry’s deficit reduction effort was not successful that such funding would have to be re-examined (as it would for many other discretionary programs, of course.)

With regard to NASA’s current budget request, Sietzen noted that the “Senate has passed more money than the President requested including $500 million for return to flight and $300 million for the Hubble Space Telescope robotic mission. Garver noted that this increased money “is not for exploration – but for shuttle overruns. The exploration budget was cut by Senate and wiped out by the House — in a Republican Congress.”

While the Bush space policy seeks to send humans out once again beyond low Earth orbit to explore, Garver’s views suggest that Kerry might not be as inclined to do so. At one point Garver said “Exploration is exciting, but it isn’t the only thing we get from space. Sending a few people to Mars (maybe) isn’t the most inspirational thing that we can be doing.” Sietzen replied “Nobody sitting here can tell me there’s anything more exciting than exploring the universe. Why is it such a hard thing to grasp? The purpose of the space program is to explore space.”

In the case of the Bush Administration’s space policy – Sietzen discussed a space policy that has actually been announced and is currently being enacted in great detail by NASA – with its budget now being debated by Congress. In stark contrast, and absent any overt space policy plan (Kerry has lots of ‘plans’) the best Lori Garver could do was to suggest what a Kerry policy might be. Indeed, one gets a clear indication that much of what Garver said was what she would like to see- not what Kerry might actually do.

Editor’s Note: For those of you who might be thinking that I am pro-Bush and anti- Kerry – let me set the record straight: if the election of 2004 was only about space policy, I would vote for George Bush without hesitation. I feel that a Kerry Administration would be disastrous for the prospects of a broad, exciting program of true human and robotic space exploration. Indeed, looking at John Kerry’s voting record on space, I feel that under John Kerry, America would shy away from the challenge that has been put before it – and that NASA would revert to what it did under the Clinton Administration i.e. go in circles – and go nowhere.

None the less, I plan on voting for John Kerry – but for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with space.

As such, don’t expect me to suggest how any of you should vote.

Related Links

Election 2004, NASA Watch

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.